01 November 2018

P.O.W. Book-turned-Opera Comes to Des Moines Area

When military reporter Tom Philpott first encountered the tragic story of an Army family that lost its way during the wartime captivity of its patriarch, Floyd James "Jim" Thompson, he could hardly have predicted the journey would include more than a decade of reporting; publishing his work not as journalism, but as oral history; and soon to be an English-language opera to be performed Nov. 16-18 2018 on the campus of the Iowa National Guard's Camp Dodge, located in Johnston, Iowa.

Performances of "Glory Denied" are:

  • 7:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 16
  • 7:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 17
  • 2 p.m. Sun., Nov. 18

Tickets are $45, and may be purchased via the Des Moines Metro Opera at 515.961.6221 or www.desmoinesmetroopera.org. On Fri., Nov. 16, there will be a 5:30 p.m. reception featuring the opera's composer, Tom Cipullo.

A FREE preview will be presented to veterans, currently service members, and their guests 7 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 15. Contact the Des Moines Metro Opera for registration.

According to press materials:
America’s longest held prisoner of war returns to a country he no longer recognizes and a family who barely recognizes him. "Glory Denied" speaks to the plight of so many of our veterans who nobly fight for their country but face huge challenges when it comes to repatriation—and their longed-for civilian lives—after service. This true story of Vietnam veteran Colonel Jim Thompson explores the unimaginable bravery asked of soldiers and even the nature of hope itself.
Following each performance, cast members and Iowa National Guard veterans and soldiers will participate in a curated talk-back session with audience members.

This is Des Moines Metro Opera's second collaboration with the Iowa National Guard. In January 2017, a production of David T. Little's rock-infused "Soldier Songs" was also conducted at Camp Dodge. See the Red Bull Rising coverage here.

The story behind "Glory Denied" was previously covered on the Red Bull Rising blog in a Jan. 11, 2013 post.

Thompson, the longest-held U.S. Prisoner of War (P.O.W.) in American history, spent 9 years in North Vietnamese captivity. The first five were in solitary confinement. He attempted to escape five times. He came home in 1973.

"He dreamed in his mind of building this dream house when he got home. It turns out that his wife was living for eight or nine years with another man, who was posing as the father of the children," says Philpott, in the 2017 Red Bull Rising interview. "The boy, who was the only boy of four children, born the day after he was shot down, was called in at 9-years-old and told, 'This is not your dad. Here's a picture of your dad. He's coming home.'"

Then a reporter for the Army Times, Philpott first wrote a magazine-length article about Thompson in 1986. Thompson had suffered a stroke in 1980, and was living alone in Key West, Fla. To get past his expressive aphasia, Thompson played for Philpott a tape recording of a local media interview he'd given after his return.

Philpott ended up interviewing more than 150 people to further flesh out the story. "I didn't want to just tell his story," he says. "I wanted to tell about the impact of his captivity was on his whole family." The book-length oral history was published in 2001, with each friend's and family-member's recollections presented in their own words. Inspired in format by a 1982 book titled "Edie: American Girl," which relates from multiple perspectives the story of one of Andy Warhol's constellation of personalities, Philpott's book reads much like the script of a play. Or, as it turns out, a libretto.

"I had tape-recorded everything," says Philpott. "When I was writing the book, I found that the voices were so powerful and poignant and truthful—and the story was so unbelievable—I thought that if I wrote it as a single-narrator, people just wouldn't believe it. It would lose the poignancy of what they were telling me."

Following the publication of "Glory Denied: The Vietnam Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War" as a book, composer Tom Cipullo contacted the author regarding the possibility of presenting the narrative as an opera.

While in development, portions of the 2006 work were presented by the New York City Opera at an annual festival. The Brooklyn College Opera Theater put it on. Then, the Chelsea Opera Company "got some really beautiful talent behind it," says Philpott. "That attracted review in the New York Times." The work was subsequently performed in May 2007 by the Brooklyn College Opera Theater.

Presented in two acts, the 78-minute opera is written for two sopranos, a tenor, a baritone, and a small orchestra. The males respectively play the younger and older versions of Jim Thompson, while the females depict the younger and older incarnations of his wife, Alyce. Past reviewers note the opera's interwoven narratives, brute-force emotions, and a modernist angularity that isn't afraid to occasionally carry a tune.

"It was only in the Arlington performance that I heard the entire libretto—the instrumentation didn't overwhelm it for the first time," says Philpott. "I could understand everything that was said. [Cipullo's] choices were all from the book—he had used all these oral histories, the words from these people, who had said them to each other. It was masterful."

Philpott credits the opera with reawakening interest in his book, which was re-released as a trade paperback in 2012. He is currently a syndicated newspaper columnist on military topics.

Thompson died of a heart attack in 2002. He was 69.

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